With election fever raging, I’m revisiting a few commentaries I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two election cycles ago. I think some of them are worth another look.
I was a junior in college when I cast my first presidential ballot, firm in my conviction that Ronald Reagan would cure the nation’s ills by doubling defense spending, cutting taxes, and balancing the budget, all at once. And yet, for all my youthful naivete, I invested considerable time researching candidates and initiatives in order to make enlightened choices. Now, however, in the maturity of middle age, between three jobs and four children, time is something I can no longer afford.
So I pay a different price: never before this past election day have I felt so sickened by my own ignorance, by my lack of familiarity with the issues. I rubber-stamped judgeships, punched third-party candidates who I knew could never win, and tried to decide between proposals based on pseudo-knowledge gleaned from radio talk shows and advertisements. And, as I slunk away from the polling place, one morbid thought reverberated in my brain: I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
I checked with my friends. I’m not.
The truth is that we could find the time if we felt motivated to do so. Instead, when weighed against our job and family commitments, we shirk our civic duty without much remorse; ultimately, we don’t believe it really matters. Nor does our apathy stem primarily from a dislike or mistrust of the candidates on the ballot (although we don’t like them and we don’t trust them), but from a loss of faith in the public’s ability to make informed, well-reasoned decisions, even if we do.
One recent example is the failed (1998 Missouri) tobacco initiative. When it was introduced, the public strongly supported it. But after the tobacco industry’s multi-million dollar ad campaign associating the bill with big government, the public voted it down. If huge corporations can buy elections, why should I invest my meager resources trying to tip the scale?
It’s been many years since my high school social studies classes, but what I remember about American democratic theory is that the framers intended for us to choose representatives based on their integrity, their commitment to the welfare of the collective, and their ability to understand and evaluate matters of public policy. Merely to fathom government affairs is at least a full time job, and We The People need to recognize that we may not have sufficient exposure or grasp of all the facts and figures to make competent decisions, much less the panoramic overview of the political landscape necessary to keep all that information in perspective.
In short, popular opinion makes for an unsteady moral or legislative compass. Slavery was enormously popular. So was excluding women from the vote. So was segregation. We might never have cast off these social anachronisms if our leaders had not shown us the way.
Our current leadership crisis stems from the simple reality that we don’t want our representatives to lead. We don’t want leaders at all, but government by consensus. We want civil servants who read the polls daily and do what we tell them, who don’t make judgements about whether popular opinion is right or wrong. I wonder if Karl Marx anticipated this when he envisioned the dictatorship of the proletariat.
More likely, this is what the sages of the Talmud envisioned when they predicted a future generation characterized by “the face of a dog.” A dog walks out in front, followed by a man holding on to a leash. To all appearances, the dog is leading the man. But when the dog is uncertain which direction to take, it looks over its shoulder for instruction from its master. Such are our political leaders today, never making a move or taking a turn without first consulting the polls. And that’s exactly the way we like it.
What we like, however, is not often what’s best for us. I for one, would sleep better at night knowing that the ship of state is steered by a captain who does not feel compelled to consult every deck hand before making command decisions.
Of course, with so few commanders deserving of our confidence, it’s not surprising that we have more faith in our own judgement than we have in theirs. But this, too, is our own fault, for we continue to insist that integrity is not an essential quality for leadership. Such an attitude attracts candidates of little substance, and we choose between them based upon what they promise to do rather than what they promise to be. True, integrity alone is not enough. But without integrity, even the most capable administrator will fail to provide for our nation and our communities what is for us, in these uncertain times, most needed: a model of personal and national responsibility.
Apathy at the polls reflects apathy with our leaders, which implies that many Americans do in fact long for a more distinguished list of candidates from which to choose, come election day. But from where will leaders of integrity appear? Only when we as a society begin to insist on a moral standard, then such people will be drawn back to public service. Before that happens, however, we have to outgrow our childish insistence on getting what we want, and learn to appreciate that what is best for the nation is ultimately what is best for us.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 1999)
I published this in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch eight years ago, on the morning of the New Hampshire primaries in the year John McCain lost the Repulican presidential nomination to George W. Bush. I think the message is still relevant today. (This is not intended as an endorsement.)
It’s no coincidence that many of our country’s most accomplished leaders have been less than overwhelmingly popular: typically, they have refused to pander to special interest groups or to the public for support, immersing themselves so deeply in their jobs that they have no time to care what anybody thinks of them.
But this is a lesson we refuse to learn. And so we persist in casting our votes for the candidates who look best on TV and speak in the catchiest sound-bytes or with the smoothest, most comforting rhetoric.
It’s depressing. It’s depressing that after two terms of scandals, doubletalk, and outright lies, so few people have come around to the realization that the best candidate is not the one who promises us what he thinks we want, but the one whose character shines.
Consequently, George W. Bush will probably win, not because he has proven himself better than John McCain but because he has raised the most money, bought the most exposure, and told us repeatedly what we want to hear. And he will probably face Al Gore, not because Mr. Gore has proven himself better than Bill Bradley but because he is the Vice President and people have been hearing his name for the last eight years.
It’s not the process that needs an overhaul. It’s us. If we ever hope to realize the potential of our richly variegated national culture and benefit from the consolidation of our widely differing values and perspectives, what we need desperately are voices of moderation. Not voices of indecision, and not voices that strike the middle road because it is in the middle, but voices that cry out to resist the pull of extremism and raise the banner of reasonable negotiation. Not voices that compromise out of ambivalence but voices that preach the necessity of unwavering commitment to and occasional sacrifice for the ideals and goals that best serve the national interest. Not voices of mediocrity, but voices of integrity.
The problem with moderates is that they tend to behave moderately, attracting far less attention than the rantings of the far right or the far left. And so, to respond to the polarization and philosophical gridlock of our times we need immoderate voices of moderation, voices from statesmen who refuse to toe the party line when the party has strayed from the straight path and who refrain from railing against the opposition for no reason other than because they sit on the other side of the aisle.
We have the incredible good fortune in this election to have each major party fielding a candidate of character and moderation. A presidential race between Bill Bradley and John McCain would give us the opportunity, perhaps for the first time in decades, to choose between two good men instead of having to choose the lesser of two evils.
Still, both men remain long shots. For even though hardly anybody seems to really like either of front-runners, both of them benefit from political inertia. George Bush and Al Gore are the front-runners because they are the front-runners: everybody wants to vote for a winner.
Really, nothing could be more foolish. My one vote will not decide even the tiniest local referendum, much less a national election. So why do I vote? I vote because I want to be part of the process, because I understand that an election is determined by many individual votes, just as choral music is produced by many individual voices. Imagine what would happen if everyone sang off key.
Our most savvy politicians know that public opinion is swayed most effectively through repetition, and they drum their messages into our collective subconscious through the incessant buzz of pre-election advertising. Political propaganda is so pervasive that we’re hardly even aware of it anymore, but we grow indifferent to it at our peril. Adolph Hitler used it to corrupt the soul of Germany. Joseph McCarthy very nearly accomplished the same thing here in America. But if propaganda can be employed for self-serving ends, why can’t we turn it around and utilize it for our benefit?
The world is not changed for the better by grand promises and flashy advertisements, but by the measured, steady, constant declaration of human values and human dignity. This is how responsible parents raise their children, by teaching them over and over again what is right until the message sinks in. And this is how we can shape our society: by speaking civilly, by acting nobly, and by choosing leaders who will do the same.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2000)
Posted by Yonason Goldson in on August 1, 2008
Erika Harold was crowned “Miss America” in 2003, as was Heather Whitestone in 1995. But the two had something much more consequential in common. I don’t know what has become of either of them, but at the time their nonconformity was inspirational.
The Private Life of Miss America
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Wisdom can be found in the most unlikely places. Indeed, we find it there more often than not, for we tend to ignore it when it comes to us packaged conventionally.
Consider how little attention was given to the U.S. News & World Report cover story [May 19, 1997] examining the cultural fallout from premarital sex. The article took for granted that “most of the current social ills tied to sexual behavior stem chiefly from adults who have sex before they marry, not from sexually active teens,” but went on to say (with a touch of irony) that almost no one seems comfortable taking a stand on sexual abstinence. Even morality guru William Bennett demurred from being interviewed for the report.
Perhaps U.S. News should have republish the story with the name of either Heather Whitestone or Erika Harold as the byline. Both received plenty of attention speaking out in support of a more restrained personal lifestyle.
Former President Clinton, former Speaker-elect Bob Livingston, former presidential candidate Gary Hart, former New York governor Elliot Spitzer, former congressman Gary Condit, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson could all have benefited from Miss Harold’s advice earlier in their respective careers: if premarital sex is a bad idea, extramarital sex must be even worse. But even in the face of cold reason, most of us concede the virtues of abstinence only grudgingly, taking few steps either toward curbing our own sexually liberated behavior or away from glamorizing free sexual expression.
Indeed, all through Mr. Clinton’s impeachment hearings Republicans seemed fully conscious that their only hope of conviction lay in an obstruction charge, not a morals indictment. Any attack against the president from beneath a banner of sexual conduct could never have carried the day, and even obstruction of justice, when linked to sexual behavior, was not only defeated in the senate but ridiculed in the press. A few short years later, Mr. Clinton’s scandal is nearly forgotten, submerged beneath an ever rising tide of public indecency.
But the issue made it back on center stage for a short while, thanks to integrity, determination, and pluck of 22 year-old Erika Harold. Pageant officials were less than enthusiastic, it seems, and reportedly pressured Miss Harold not to embroider her originally stated, non-controversial platform of teen violence prevention. But Miss America was having none of it, explaining to The Washington Times her belief “that if a young person is engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle, it makes them vulnerable to other risk factors.”
By taking so vocal a stand on so unpopular an issue, the present Miss America attracted considerably more attention than the quiet announcement several years ago by a different Miss America, Heather Whitestone, that she intended to pursue a “Hands Off”policy with fiance John McCallum during their first six months together. How ironic that these icons of America’s glamor culture have forced us to take another look at what was considered basic common sense in the cultural main stream for several thousand years — and in some circles still is.
As much as gefilte fish is a staple of the Jewish Sabbath menu, so too is the shaddchun, or matchmaker, a staple of traditional Jewish relationships. For scores of generations, Jewish marriages have been built upon the understanding that objective third parties will succeed in the selection of life partners far more consistently than will teens, twenty-somethings, or even adults left to chance meetings and to their own passions. The shaddchun proposes, and the interested parties meet, whether for months or weeks or sometimes only days until either decides “nay” or both decide “yea.” And for however long it takes, one binding premise governs negotiations from the start: Hands Off.
Miss Whitestone’s explanation — “I wanted to get to know his heart first” — was a refreshing sentiment of a kind too seldom heard today, one reflecting a savvy for what should be obvious but rarely is: that sex provides a shoddy foundation for marriage, and that intimacy, once made cheap, does not recover its former value easily.
On the contrary, love is a product of marriage, not a basis for it, blossoming naturally as two people build a life together in pursuit of common goals. Love is not, as centuries of romantic literature would have us believe, a spontaneous phenomenon that explodes unreasoningly into existence, like the big bang; neither is it something into which one falls, like the mud. Lust or infatuation may strike in a moment, but “love at first sight” results only from myopia of the mind’s eye.
Nevertheless, we ask again and again, “What is this thing called love?” How ironic that we find the answer so elusive, given that a generation ago “I love you” was already our culture’s most overused expression. I love you, I love my car, I love ice cream, I love my dog and yes, I’d love to come up for a nightcap. And then we wake up in the morning wondering why we are out of touch with our feelings and why our relationships never last, if indeed they ever get started at all.
Not that it’s all bad news, of course. Therapists are doing well. So are divorce lawyers. And authors of self-help books have built a cottage industry around our collective dysfunction.
Why are we so reluctant to give all this up?
For those who have given it up, the dividends abound: AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teenage pregnancy — the very “social ills” described by U.S. News — are virtually unknown among those segments of the Jewish community that practice shmiras negiah — Hands Off. Boys and girls grow up in an environment in which physical intimacy, by definition, is something reserved for one’s partner for life. Consequently, marriage retains greater sanctity and better endures: estimates of divorce rates among orthodox Jews range between a third and a sixth of the 50% percent national average, falling as low as 5% among some of the most insular orthodox groups.
Adultery is especially rare. Hands Off, you see, applies not only to dating but even to casual contact between all men and women outside the immediate family. In some communities, even a formal handshake between a man and a woman is taboo.
Extreme? Perhaps, or perhaps not. For in a world where sexual indiscretions have become commonplace among presidents, congressmen, jurists and, tragically, even members of the clergy, perhaps the rest of us should not take it for granted that our fortresses of commitment and self-control will so easily withstand the assault of impulse and passion.
Indeed, the cultural assault on abstinence and fidelity thunders deafeningly, while the voice of virtue barely rises above a whisper. The great deity of the sixties and seventies — self-gratification — has become the universally accepted moral compass of the nineties and today. And although “Just Do It” may be an effective slogan for selling shoes, it sells our children equally well on the notion that impetuosity is the key to happiness, reckless abandon the guarantor of self-fulfillment. The likely consequences of STDs and unwanted pregnancies are conveniently ignored. The frequent fallout of emotional scarring is scarcely contemplated.
No longer does might make right — delight makes right. All the inescapable advertising cliches that urge us not to challenge limits but to ignore them also erode any fundamental sense that limits are set for our protection. Not even the most ardent libertarians will advocate the abolition of divided highways, stop signs, or air traffic controllers. And there is good reason for having a fence crowning the Empire State Building: one misstep allows for no second chance.
Protective fences need to be erected far back from hot spots in all matters, but particularly where the conflagration of passion burns hottest and is capable of inflicting damage both swift and severe. How effortlessly will the spark from a one-night-stand reduce the stanchions of trust to ashes, consume a marriage, and cause a child’s world to collapse, burying the joy of youth beneath the ashes of a razed family. But if the first touch and the first kiss are unequivocally proscribed, early warning bells can prompt us to extinguish the fire even before the flames of destructive passion have a chance to kindle.
Both these policies of Hands Off and of abstinence were around not only before the Miss America pageant but long before all of Western Civilization. If so, why do they command attention when endorsed by attractive young women, while as tenets of the world’s oldest theology they continues to attract no attention at all?
The answer is obvious: We don’t expect to hear such things from Miss America. And who gives even a passing thought to stodgy old religious dogma, anyway?
Sagacity, to be accepted today, must be dispensed in sound-bytes from one of the legion of pundits and soothsayers on the cutting edge of au courant western thought. Venus and Mars and myriad other satellites and constellations dot the heavens of conventional wisdom and eclipse any luminaries that do not revolve upon the firmament of supermarket checkout isles or daytime talk radio. Indeed, any fool will tell you that only a philosopher riding the crest of contemporary experience can address the issues of our society with relevance. Just ask any fool. And if you listen to him, you deserve what you get.
Alas, Miss Whitestone’s words have long since passed from the public consciousness, as have Miss Harold’s. But this too is for the best, at least for both Miss Americas. To be out of the public eye, ‘tis a consecration devoutly to be wish’d. Not wished for by many, however, for just as intimacy is in its death throes here in America, so too is privacy. We fail to understand that privacy, like intimacy, is both a virtue to be admired and a treasure to be jealously guarded. Conversely, fame is both a vice and a curse, although one wouldn’t know it from the electronic media’s most successful innovations — Jerry Springer-style talk shows and reality television. For good reason did Marcus Aurelius denounce fame as nothing more than “vanity.”
Like intimacy, private lives have gone out of fashion today. Just as we invite strangers into our beds, so to do we invite anyone who will listen into the deepest corners of our lives as each of us vies for his allotted 15 minutes in the public eye. Our regard for privacy is ever eroded by the inescapable message that renown is the ultimate measure of success. But consider: if private lives were not so dear, why would everyone else be trying so hard to steal ours away from us?
Miss Harold’s message was not new; neither was Miss Whitestone’s. Yet each has offered us the opportunity to recognize the ancient wisdom that has laid open before us for generations. But the realists (and cynics) among us will know how unlikely it is that anyone will take notice for long. Ancient wisdom also teaches that the best hiding place is in plain sight, since everyone knows that nothing of value is left out in the open for all to see. Nothing, that is, except for ancient wisdom.
Perhaps that explains why ancient wisdom so often is ignored.
Copyright Yonason Goldson